'Great Story' Indeed: Cats Headed to Final Four
March 30, 2014
By Eric Lindsey, CoachCal.com
INDIANAPOLIS - Nearly one month ago, on March 1 in Columbia, S.C., Aaron Harrison faced a horde of reporters in the bowels of South Carolina's arena and tried to make sense of Kentucky's inexplicable loss to the Southeastern Conference cellar-dwelling Gamecocks.
Confidently, surprisingly, he said of Kentucky's remaining season: "It's going to be a great story."
Few people could have believed him. Even his twin brother, Andrew, hardly did.
"I was like, 'Aaron, I hope so,' " Andrew Harrison said Sunday night, shaking his head at the mere thought of where this UK team was a month ago.
There's no need to hope anymore. The unthinkable of a month ago, it's happened.
Kentucky is headed back to the Final Four for the third time in four seasons after a heart-stopping 75-72 victory over Michigan in yet another classic befitting the Wildcats' wacky, mind-boggling season.
Fittingly, the guy who foretold the baffling turnaround punched the Wildcats' ticket to Dallas with a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 2.6 seconds left to break the tie and win the game.
"Andrew gave me a hand-off and I kind of fumbled it," Aaron Harrison said. "I had to get control of the ball back and I tried to create some space. He was up on me. He touched my hand a little bit, actually. And the shot just fell."
It fell as if it was fate, as if this team is destined for something special. With the way things have gone lately - the Cats winning four straight games in the NCAA Tournament after losing three of four a month ago and falling from preseason No. 1 to out of the polls altogether -- it sure feels like it.
"I wouldn't say that 'I told you so' or anything, but ... we knew what kind of team we could be," Aaron Harrison said.
It's become the team everyone thought it could be at the beginning of the season when the unprecedented collection of talent and McDonald's All-Americans was talked about potentially going 40-0; the one everyone forgot about when it struggled to 10 regular-season losses; and now, it's a leading contender to cut down the nets in Dallas next weekend.
The Cats (28-10) are just two wins away from their ninth national championship. The next roadblock is on Saturday against Wisconsin.
"We showed a lot of toughness," Aaron Harrison said. "We're just a group of young guys, doesn't matter about the age or anything anymore, we just try to go out and fight and keep our heads down and swing the whole game."
Aaron Harrison saved his hardest swings for the clutch.
After going scoreless for nearly 32 minutes of game time, Aaron Harrison hit four field goals - all 3-pointers - in the final 8:06 of the game, saving his best for last after Michigan's Jordan Morgan had tied it on a tip-in with 27 seconds left.
John Calipari called timeout - which he normally doesn't do so the other team can't set up defensively - and drew up a play for the hot hand. The plan didn't call for Aaron Harrison to take a 3, especially one of that distance, but it didn't matter; he made it anyways.
"You can't be afraid to miss," Coach Cal said. "He's not afraid to miss."
"It was like a rainbow shot, one of those that takes like five seconds to drop," said Alex Poythress, who scored eight big points. "Once it finally went in, I probably jumped five feet in the air. I was just happy."
When Nik Stauskas' last-second heave from half court met only the backboard, pandemonium broke out on the court at Lucas Oil Stadium. UK was headed to its 16th Final Four in school history.
"We don't know if it was another classic kind of game, but I'll tell you this: They weren't going to go away and neither were we," Calipari said.
This one, the third straight unforgettable NCAA Tournament game the Cats have played in, featured seven ties and three lead changes. That almost looked like it would never happen when Stauskas and Michigan raced out to a 10-point first-half lead.
Burying 3-pointers and capitalizing on second-chance opportunities, the Wolverines took a 32-22 lead with 5:10 left in the first half. But Kentucky, as it has done in the last three games of this tournament when it's trailed by nine, 13 and 10 points, respectively, refused to go down.
"They played better when they're down and I don't know why," Calipari said. "They play fearless. They play aggressive. They get emotion. They bow their neck. They have a will to win."
Getting major minutes because of the loss of Willie Cauley-Stein, Lee not only played well, he kept UK in the game. The freshman forward who had scored just nine points in all of 2014 and none since Feb. 22 scored 10 points on Sunday - four of them on tip-in dunks - grabbed four rebounds and blocked a shot in the first half alone.
Coach Cal, apparently, knew he had it in him all along. Two days earlier, he told Lee that "everyone in the world would be talking about you" after the game.
"He told the team I was going to have a big day," Lee said. "Knowing us, none of us believed him."
It appears nothing is unbelievable on this dream run.
After Lee steadied the ship and Julius Randle tied the game just before halftime, UK rode Randle to six quick points to start the second half and a brief 45-39 lead.
Carolyn Kyles, Randle's mother, saw her son take over, but she didn't get a chance to see him finish off his 24th double-double (16 points and 11 rebounds) and his most gratifying moment as a basketball player. According to the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker, she had to leave with 11 minutes to play to catch a flight for work the next day in Dallas.
"I looked up and she wasn't there," Randle said.
He will see her next week when he goes back home to play in his hometown in Dallas.
"I'm coming home to my mom," Randle said.
Michigan came back and took the lead on a 16-6 run, but that's when Aaron Harrison got going. His first trey with 8:06 left gave UK a 58-55 advantage, a lead it would hold on until Michigan tied it at 70.
That set the stage for the final shot and just the latest stamp on UK' reclamation project. Sure, these Cats didn't understand what it took to win for much of the season, but they've learned, come together and now knocked off three of the four teams that were in last year's Final Four.
"It's just a great feeling," Aaron Harrison said. "We've been through so much and been doubted so much that we just came together at the end of the season, just got better, and I don't know how many teams are mentally strong enough to do something like that. We proved a lot to the world - even to ourselves."
They've proved everybody right and everybody wrong at the same time. This team is as talented and as scary as everyone thought it was in the preseason, but it took adversity, it took criticism and it took a bunch of young guys growing up to finally put it together.
"Never give up," Randle said. "The biggest thing is we know we have hard-nosed guys, tough guys. Everybody stayed the course, never wavered."
Now they don't want it to end. They've written their unbelievably great story. Why not make it legendary?
"We're still not satisfied," Poythress said. "We still got things to prove. We still got two games to prove. We're trying to leave on top."